Building Your Network Virtually

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With many campuses closed, internships canceled, and employers working remotely, you might be tempted to move networking to your post-pandemic to-do list. However, in a challenging job market, making career connections is now more important than ever. The good news is that virtual networking opportunities are still out there. And none of them cost the price of a plane ticket.

Build your network now

Networking is not about finding that one perfect contact who is going to land you a dream job. It’s about getting to know people who share your interests and are open to exchanging advice and insights at any career stage. Therefore, even if you’re not currently searching for a job, the time to network is now.

“I consider networking to be building relationships with people,” says Jana Markley, senior scientist at the pharmaceuticals company AbbVie. “If you think of networking as simply reaching out to another person—maybe with a similar story but just at a different point in their journey, it becomes less intimidating.”

Networking is critical for helping you understand what sorts of positions are available and which would be the best fit for you, says Samina Azad, an ACS career consultant and the R&D manager at the Illinois-based company PLZ Aeroscience, where she specializes in consumer packaged goods (CPG) research and development. When you have questions such as, “what is it like to work in academia versus industry or government?" says Azad, "the best way to find out is by talking to people.”

The people that you connect with now might vouch for you when your résumé is on the table or give you a heads-up about a new opening before it’s posted. They could also help you understand what is expected of you in a new position, which could ease new job jitters. 

Before beginning her first industry job, Azad thought that she needed to know everything about how to perform her role on day one. “Really that’s not the case. What industry is looking for is somebody smart and willing and able to learn very quickly,” she says. “I was very worried before I started and, unfortunately, I didn’t network and ask people the right questions.”   

Make the most of the virtual meeting

Reaching out to new people, especially those senior to you, can feel intimidating whether in a conference space or cyberspace. When you attend conferences in person, you might rely on a mentor to introduce you to potential employers. You might even happen to find yourself in line for coffee behind your dream graduate advisor and (deep breath!) muster up the courage to ask a question about her recent paper.   

Networking can feel unnerving, especially for introverts, says Alayna Johnson, who graduated from the University of Illinois in spring 2020 with a B.S. in chemistry. In person conferences forced Johnson to move out of her comfort zone and talk to new people. “If someone is at your poster, you have to talk,” she says. After the ACS Spring 2020 National Meeting was canceled, she still shared her poster online via ACS’s SciMeetings platform. But she didn’t feel the same push to network.

With many conferences moving online, making connections will require a little extra work. Some, including the upcoming ACS national meeting, help link students with potential employers through virtual career fairs. Azad suggests that students review the list of career fair employers and begin reaching out before the conference to ask what it’s like to work at that organization. 

In addition, if you learn something fascinating at a virtual meeting, you can use that intriguing talk or poster as a conversation starter. Students can contact a presenter through e-mail or LinkedIn with a comment or question, says James Murray, a professor of chemistry at Immaculata University in Pennsylvania and ACS career consultant. “Maybe it will turn into a phone call or a Zoom meeting to start getting that connection tighter,” he says. “You can see what it is that both sides can bring to a particular issue, whether mentoring, or solving a scientific problem, or looking for jobs or internships.”

If you feel nervous about reaching out, remember that “everybody at that meeting had to have the same start as you,” says Murray. “The more you practice the networking and the talking to people, the better you get at it.”

Connect locally, even in cyberspace

Even if your classroom has moved to Zoom, your classmates are still some of your most important connections. They will be there for you now to troubleshoot that failed experiment, and they will be there for you years from now when you need advice on a career transition.  

Before the pandemic, one of the best ways to connect with peers—and employers—was through ACS student chapters and local sections. In today’s virtual world, that doesn’t have to change. “Students are a huge part of our membership,” says Sara Hubbard, chair-elect of the Central Arkansas ACS local section and analytical chemistry associate professor at Ouachita Baptist University. Hubbard’s section is planning several virtual happy hours, including a networking event and a virtual tour of a local distillery. They’ll provide recipes for a cocktail and a mocktail in advance so members can make their own to sip on during the events. 

“ACS has really done a great job of moving a lot of things virtual,” says Markley, who is the cochair of the Chicago ACS local section’s Younger Chemists Committee (YCC). In March 2020, for example, her organization teamed up with YCCs in Nashville and St. Louis to host a virtual, three-session professional development series that covered everything from résumé formatting and interview skills to salary negotiations and onboarding.

About 60 people attended the first session and about 30 attended each of the following sessions, with RSVP’s for the series coming in from 15 states and five countries. Other YCCs are also hosting professional development events virtually. In late July, for example, Eastern New York, Philadelphia, Virginia, and Nashville YCCs teamed up to host their second “Day in the Life Event” so that members could hear about what it’s like to be an assistant professor of chemistry.

“Even if you are in a place where your YCC or local section may not be offering programming specifically for you,” says Markley, “there are lots of opportunities for people to join in the conversation elsewhere.”

Lauren Chamberlain, a rising senior at Pennsylvania State University and vice president of the Penn State ACS student chapter, says that if her chapter can’t meet in person this fall, they will still host Zoom meetings “just for people to hang out and get to know each other.”

Social media, now more than ever

“Social media, particularly in the era of COVID-19, provides students with the opportunity to connect with others and learn about career paths,” says Kate Szumanksi, director of professional development and internships at Villanova University and instructor of an undergraduate course on social networking for career success. Maybe an internship fell through this summer, she says, but students can still learn about a field by following on Twitter relevant hashtags and chemists whose work they admire.

You could start by following professors and peers in your own department. Pay attention to whose research they retweet and which hashtags keep appearing. If you read an exciting new paper in lab, you could follow the authors on Twitter so you’ll know when they tweet about a new paper or an opening for a new student.

“Most of my social media engagement is following people on Twitter whose labs I could potentially be interested in or whose research helps me figure out what research I could be interested in,” says Javarcia Ivory, who is nearing the completion of a coterminal B.S. degree in biology with a concentration in biochemistry and master’s degree in epidemiology and clinical research at Stanford University.

Szumanksi also encourages students to use LinkedIn to find connections—visit your university’s page and filter by alumni in a field you are interested in. “Craft a message, save that message, and customize it to each individual you intend to send it to,” she says.

When sending a prospective contact a message over LinkedIn, or any medium, the key is to set the right tone. “You want to be sincere and genuine so it is clear that you want a few words of advice. You are not expecting anything else of them,” says Azad.

Szumanski suggests that students follow a formula that goes something like this: My name is X. I am a student at Y. I admire your career path and would like to speak with you for 15 minutes to know more about your career journey after college.

If you’ve already met the person, it’s important to remind them of where and when you previously connected, says Azad. 

Then comes the hard part: practicing patience. “Many of our alums have been affected, as we all have, by COVID-19,” says Szumanski. “Be patient with people. Be empathetic. Do not expect or demand an immediate response.”

When you do get the chance to speak with a new connection, use your phone or Zoom time to find out what you most want to know about their career path and profession. Some appropriate questions might be: How did you transition from your undergraduate degree to your current position? Can you describe to me what a typical workday is like for you? Do you have any advice on ways that I could prepare myself to be competitive for a position in your field?   

Keep the conversation going

Once you make a connection, you will want to maintain that relationship. If you come across an article or webpage on a common area of interest, go ahead and share it. If your contact publishes a paper or wins an award, send your congratulations.  

“Just like anything else in life, you have to work at it,” says Murray. He suggests checking in every couple of months or so to ask about a contact’s work and to share your own progress. He has students, for example, who have reached out to people they connected with through meetings months later to ask if they solved particular problems they were working through and share some details of their own work. “You’ve got to carve the time out to follow up with the connections,” says Murray. “Don’t let them wither on the vine.”

Want more tips for networking? Access ACS Webinars for professional development opportunities

Networking from Home webinar
About the Author
Carolyne Beans headshot

Carolyn Beans is a biologist turned science reporter specializing in food, agriculture and health. You can find her on twitter: @carolynmbeans